‘Charley’ and ‘Cotton’ (The 1820s)
Norwich’s Own Heroes
- The shoemaker
In 1998, David Hansen, a curator at the Tasmanian Museum and Art Gallery in Australia, uncovered a collection of 51 early 19th-Century watercolours painted by a little-known English artist, John Dempsey. These pictures are rare for being of people from the working class, rather than being of the rich and powerful. Three of them depict people of a Black and Minority Ethnic background. Of these, two are of men from Norwich: ‘Charley’, a shoemaker, and ‘Cotton’, a haberdashery street vendor.
- The market trader
Although research about Charley and Cotton is at an early stage, we can already see their importance for Black history. Painted between 1820 and 1823 – just over a decade after the abolition of the British transatlantic slave trade and a decade before slavery would finally be abolished in the British Empire – it is likely that both men were either former slaves or the sons of slaves. And yet, like Equiano, they had risen above the small-minded cruelty of the slavers and built meaningful lives.
Like millions of immigrants to the UK before and after, both men contributed to the economy and social cohesion of their adopted country. Charley ran a flourishing shoe business and Cotton worked as a market trader. There is no doubt that their lives were hard, as were those of all working class people in this era, and they would have faced further prejudice. Their response was nevertheless positive and ultimately successful, for they were part of the historical process that created the diverse culture which we celebrate in Black History Month.